FAST-US-1 Intro to American English Reference File
A Dialect Map of American English
©Robert Delaney, C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University
(reproduced for the FAST website with Robert Delaney's permission)


Introduction: Dialect Terminology

Not all people who speak a language speak it the same way. A language can be subdivided into many dialects which each vary in some way from the parent language. The term accent is often confused with dialect, but an accent refers only to the way words are pronounced, while a dialect has its own grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and common expressions, as well as pronunciation rules that make it unique from other dialects of the same language.

Another term, idiolect, refers to the manner of speaking of an individual person. No two people's idiolects are exactly the same, but people who are part of the same group will have enough verbal elements in common to be said to be speaking the same dialect.

Three things are needed for a new dialect to develop: a group of people living in close proximity to each other; this group living in isolation (either geographically or socially) from other groups; and the passage of time. Given enough time, a dialect may evolve to the point that it becomes a different language from the one it started as.

English began existence as a Germanic dialect called Anglo Saxon that was brought to England by invaders from Germany. The Anglo Saxon peoples in England were now geographically isolated from their cousins in Germany which allowed the dialects to evolve in different directions. Other invaders would also influence the development of English with their languages until the modern English we speak today has become so different from the modern German spoken in Germany that a speaker of one cannot understand a speaker of the other. Thus English and German are considered to be two different, though related, languages. The other modern languages in this family are Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic.

'Dialect' vs 'Language'

Mutual understandability in theory determines what is a "dialect" and what is a "language," but in reality there are also social and political issues. The government of a country might declare that all the languages spoken in that country are actually dialects of one language in order to create the illusion of polital unity, while the government of another country might declare that the dialect spoken by its people is actually a unique language from other countries that speak dialects of the same language in order to create a sense of national pride.

History is full of governments that have tried to impose a single language on all of their people with varying results: sometimes the minority languages become extinct; sometimes they are reduced to surviving only as dialects of the majority language. Sometimes new languages are unintentionally created by a blending of the majority and minority language(s) and dialects.

'Dialects' vs 'Pidgins'

Three other language terms are also worth mentioning. When two or more groups of people who speak different languages need to communicate with each other on a regular basis and do not want to actually learn each others' language (such as when the European merchants started trading with other peoples around the world), they may develop what is called a pidgin language. This is a simplified language that usually has as few words as possible in its vocabulary (taking some from both languages) and has been stripped of any fancier grammatical rules like the use of multiple verb conjugations and tenses - a kind of "Me Tarzan, you Jane" way of talking.

A pidgin is nobody's native language and is used only in business settings. In fact, the word "pidgin" may be derived from the way Chinese merchants mispronounced the English word "business." However, in some cases, the children in one of these areas might grow up learning the pidgin as their first language. When this happens, the pidgin can grow in complexity into a creole language with a larger set of grammatical rules and a much larger vocabulary that share elements of all the languages that went into creating it.

'Dialect' vs 'Jargon'

Finally, jargon is a specialized vocabulary used within a particular discipline, such as medical jargon for doctors, legal jargon for lawyers, or academic jargon for college professors. While jargon words occasionally filter into a mainstream dialect, they are usually used only by experts when discussing their particular field.

Critics argue, with some justification, that jargon needlessly complicates a statement that could be expressed in a more clear manner. Users of it argue, also with justification, that it is a more precise manner of speaking, although many examples can be found (especially in politics and business) where it has been used intentionally to obscure the fact that the speaker is trying to avoid being precise.

'Social' Dialects

The modern development of communications technology may possibly retard the evolution of dialects and languages. For the first time in history, a single dialect (sometimes called Network Standard) can be broadcast over an entire country, so few people actually still live in geographic isolation. However, the existence of racism, poverty, and class distinctions may cause some groups to remain socially isolated from the cultural mainstream, giving rise to social dialects like Black English (Ebonics), which is spoken by some urban African-Americans.

There was recently a great deal of political controversy (ignoring the linguistic facts) over whether Ebonics should be considered a unique language, a "legitimate" dialect of English, or "illegimate" gutterspeak. Also, teenagers enjoy creating their own dialects that they can use to quickly determine who is or is not part of the "in crowd" and as a "secret language" in front of their parents.

These dialects tend to go in and out of fashion very quickly; by the time an expression has filtered up to the mainstream dialect adults understand, the teenagers have moved on to something else. Even the Internet has given birth to what might be called a new social dialect, containing words like IMHO ("in my humble opinion"), IIRC ("if I recall correctly"), and ROTFLMAO ("rolling on the floor laughing my a** off").

Dialects vs 'Correct' English?

Contrary to what your teachers may have tried to tell you, there is no such thing as "correct English." Any manner of speaking that follows the rules of a dialect is equally "correct." Words like ain't are "real" words in some dialects and perfectly acceptable to use. However, people are judged by the way they speak, and dialects carry different levels of social prestige based on the prejudices within a society.

Generally, the southern dialects of American English carry a lower prestige, at least among northerners who will assume that a person speaking a southern dialect is less intelligent and less educated than they are. Some educated southerners even feel this way and will "correct" their speech to meet northern standards. The New York City dialect carries the lowest prestige of all (Received Standard, a dialect of British English used by the BBC and the royal family, carries the highest prestige - even among Americans). For this reason, schools try to rid children of the local dialects they learned from their family and friends in favor of a more prestigious one. (Of course, some sentences like, "Me are a educated person," would be incorrect in every dialect.)

The dialect map below lists the major (and a few minor) geographic dialects and subdialects of English spoken in the United States. Many of these may be further subdivided into local subdialects that are not shown here. Obviously, the borders between dialect regions are not well defined lines as a map like this would imply, but a gradual transition extending on both sides of the line.

Dialects and Subdialects of American English in the 48 conterminous states; see text below for descriptions
Image © Robert Delaney; reproduced with permission.
(image is displayed in slightly-reduced size; right-click and zoom in to read details)

General Northern

This is sometimes also refered to as General American and is used in almost two-thirds of the country. It breaks down into the dialect regions below.

Northern New England

Many of the Northern dialects can trace their roots to this dialect, which was spread westward by the New England settlers as they migrated west. It carries a high prestige due to Boston's early economic and cultural importance and the presence of Harvard University. A famous speaker is Katherine Hepburn. They sometimes call doughnuts cymbals, simballs, and boil cakes.

Eastern New England (1)
This is one of the most distinctive of all the American dialects. R's are often dropped, but an extra R is added to words that end with a vowel. A is pronounced AH so that we get "Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd" and "Pepperidge Fahm remembuhs."

Boston Urban (2)
Like many big cities, Boston has its own dialects that are governed more by social factors like class and ethnicity than by geographic location. Greater Boston Area is the most widely spoken and is very similar to Eastern New England. Brahmin is spoken by the upper aristocratic class like Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island.

Central City Area This is what most of us think of as being the "Boston Accent." In the last few years, Saturday Night Live has featured this dialect among a group of rowdy teenagers who like to videotape themselves. Also think of Cliff on Cheers, the only character on this Boston-based show to actually speak a Boston dialect.

Western New England (3)
Less distinctive than Eastern, but more influential on the other Northern dialects.

Hudson Valley (4)
New York was originally a Dutch colony, and that language influenced this dialect's development. Some original Hudson Valley words are stoop (small porch) and teeter-totter. They call doughnuts (which were invented by the Dutch) crullers and olycooks.

New York City (5)
Unlike Boston and other urban dialects, New York City stands by itself and bears little resemblence to the other dialects in this region. It is also the most disliked and parodied of any American dialect (even among New Yorkers), possibly because many Americans tend dislike large cities. When an R comes after a vowel, it is often dropped. IR becomes OI, but OI becomes IR, and TH becomes D as in "Dey sell tirlets on doity-doid street" and fugedaboudit (forget about it).

This pronounciation is particularly associated with Brooklyn but exists to some extent throughout the city. The thickness of a speaker's dialect is directly related to their social class, but these features have been fading within all classes over recent decades. Famous speakers are Rosie Perez, Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinnie, Archie Bunker, Bugs Bunny, and (if you're old enough to remember) the Bowery Boys.

Bonac (6)
Named for Accabonac Creek in eastern Long Island, this dialect is rapidly dying out due to the influx of people from other areas. Back when New York City belonged to the Dutch, this area was part of New England, and Bonac shows elements of both dialects.

Inland Northern (7)
Combines elements of Western New England and Upper Midwestern. Marry, merry, and Mary are pronounced the same. They call doughnuts friedcakes.

San Francisco Urban (8)
Unlike the rest of California, which in the early twentieth century saw an influx of people from the South and other parts of the West, San Francisco continued to be settled by people from the Northeast and Northern Midwest, and elements of their dialects (North Midland, Upper Midwestern, Inland Northern) can be found. The Mission dialect, spoken by Irish Catholics in a specific part of the city, is very much like the New York City dialect.

Upper Midwestern (9)
Originally settled by people from New England and New York State who brought those dialects, this area was also influenced by Southerners coming up the Mississippi River as well as the speech patterns of the German and Scandinavian immigrants and the Canadian English dialects from over the border. It's sometimes referred to as a "Midwestern twang." They call jelly doughnuts bismarks.

Minnewegian (Minnesota / Norwegian), a subdialect spoken in the northernmost part of this region was spoofed in the movies Fargo and Drop Dead Gorgeous.

Chicago Urban (10)
Influenced by the Midland and Southern dialects. Often spoken by the late John Belushi (Chicago's Second City comedy theater supplied many Saturday Night Live actors). SNL used to spoof it in the "Da Bears, Da Bulls" sketches. They call any sweet roll doughnuts.

North Midland (11)
Created as the people in Pennsylvania migrated westward and influenced by Scotch-Irish, German, and English Quaker settlers. This and the South Midland dialect can actually be considered a separate Midland Dialect region that serves as a transition zone between the north and south. They call doughnuts belly sinkers, doorknobs, dunkers, and fatcakes.

Pennsylvania German-English (12)
This was strongly influenced by Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of German spoken by people in this area (in this context, "Dutch" is actually a mispronunciation of the German word, "Deutsch," which means "German"). Its grammar allows sentences like "Smear your sister with jam on a slice of bread" and "Throw your father out the window his hat." They call doughnuts fasnacht, and they also invented dunking - from the German "dunken" (to dip).

Western

Compared with the Eastern United States, the Western regions were settled too recently for very distinctive dialects to have time to develop or to be studied in detail. Many words originally came from Spanish, cowboy jargon, and even some from the languages of the Native Americans: adobe, beer bust, belly up, boneyard, bronco, buckaroo, bunkhouse, cahoots, corral, greenhorn, hightail, hoosegow, lasso, mustang, maverick, roundup, wingding.

Rocky Mountain (13)
Originally developed from the North Midland and Northern dialects, but was then influenced by the Mormon settlers in Utah and English coal miners who settled in Wyoming. Some words that came from this dialect are kick off (to die), cache (hiding place), and bushed (tired). They also call jelly doughnuts bismarks.

Pacific Northwest (14)
Influenced by settlers from the Midwest and New England as well as immigrants from England, Germany, Scandinavia, and Canada. Much earlier, a pidgin called

Chinook Jargon was developed between the languages of the Native American tribes of this area. It would later also be used and influenced by the European settlers who wished to communicate with them. A few words from Chinook Jargon like high muckamuck (important person) are still used in this dialect today. (Note that, in this case, the word "jargon" has a different meaning from the one discussed above)

Alaska (not shown)
Developed out of the Northern, Midland, and Western dialects. Also influenced by the native languages of the Alutes, Innuit, and Chinook Jargon. Some words that originated here are: bush (remote area), cabin fever, mush (to travel by dog sled), parka, stateside.

Pacific Southwest (15)
The first English speakers arrived here from New York, Ohio, Missouri, New England, and other parts of the Northeast and Midwest in the 1840s, bringing the Northern and North Midland dialects with them. Words originally used by the gold miners of this period are still used today: pay dirt (valuable discovery), pan out (to succeed), and goner (doomed person).

The early twentieth century saw an influx of people from the South and other parts of the West. The people here are particularly fond of creating new slang and expressions, and, since Hollywood is located here, these quickly get spread to the rest of the country and the world.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, an extreme exaggeration of this dialect that came to be known as "Valley Girl" or "Surfer Dude" was popular among teenagers and much parodied in the media with phrases like "gag me with a spoon" and "barf me back to the stone age." Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Whoopie Goldberg in her one-woman show are two famous examples.

Southwestern (16)
By the time this area became part of the United States, there had already been as many as ten generations of Spanish speaking people living here, so the Mexican dialect of Spanish had an important influence on this area that became a melting pot for dialects from all over the USA. Some local words are: caballero, cantina, frijoles, madre, mesa, nana, padre, patio, plaza, ramada, tortilla.

Hawaii (not shown)
The original language of the Native Hawaiians is part of the Polynesian family. English speakers arrived in 1778, but many other settlers also came from China, Portugal, Japan, Korea, Spain, and the Philippines to influence the modern dialect. Hawaiian Creole developed from a pidgin English spoken on the sugar plantations with workers from Hawaii and many other countries. Some words are: look-see, no can, number one (the best), plenty (very). It isn't widely spoken anymore.

Nonstandard Hawaiian English developed from Hawaiian Creole and is spoken mostly by teenagers. Standard Hawaiian English is part of the Western dialect family but shows less influence from the early New England dialect than any other American dialect. It has many words borowed from the original Hawaiian as well as some from the other Asian languages mentioned above: aloha, hula, kahuna, lei, luau, muumuu, poi, ukulele.

General Southern

This dialect region matches the borders of the Confederate states that seceded during the "Confederate War" and is still a culturally distinct region of the United States. Since it was largely an agricultural area, people tended to move around less than they did in the north, and as a result, the subdialects are much less uniform than those of the General Northern regions and have much more clearly defined boundaries. Other languages that had an important influence on it are French (since the western region was originally French territory) and the African languages spoken by the people brought over as slaves.

People tend to speak slower here than in the north creating the famous southern "drawl." I is pronounced AH, and OO is pronounced YOO, as in "Ah'm dyoo home at fahv o'clock." An OW in words like loud is pronounced with a slided double sound AOO (combining the vowel sounds in "hat" and "boot"). Some local words are: boogerman, funky (bad smelling), jump the broomstick (get married), kinfolks, mammy, muleheaded, overseer, tote, y'all.

South Midland (17)
This area, dominated by the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozark Mountains, was originally settled by the Pennsylvania Dutch moving south from the North Midland areas and the Scotch-Irish moving west from Virginia. A TH at the end of words or syllables is sometimes pronounced F, and the word ARE is often left out of sentences as they are in Black English. An A is usually placed at the beginning of verb that ends with ING, and the G is dropped; an O at the end of a word becomes ER. ("They a-celebratin' his birfday by a-goin' to see 'Old Yeller' in the theatah").

A T is frequently added to words that end with an S sound. Some words are: bodacious, heap, right smart (large amount), set a spell, and smidgin. American English has retained more elements of the Elizabethan English spoken in the time of Shakespeare than modern British English has, and this region has retained the most. Some Elizabethan words that are extinct in England are: bub, cross-purposes, fall (autumn), flapjack, greenhorn, guess (suppose), homely, homespun, jeans, loophole, molasses, peek, ragamuffin, reckon, sorry (inferior), trash, well (healthy).

Ozark (18)
Made famous by the Beverly Hillbillies, this isolated area was settled by people from the southern Appalachian region and developed a particularly colorful manner of speaking.

Southern Appalachian (19)
It is a popular myth that there are a few remote regions here that still speak an unchanged form of Elizabethan English, but they aren't true. Linguists are still studying the specific differences with South Midland.

Southern

As the northern dialects were originally dominated by Boston, the southern dialects were heavily influenced by Charleston, Richmond, and Savannah. They tend to drop Rs the way New Englanders do, but they don't add extra Rs. Some words are: big daddy (grandfather), big mamma (grandmother), Confederate War (Civil War), cooter (turtle), fixing to (going to), goober (peanut), hey (hello), mouth harp (harmonica), on account of (because).

Virginia Piedmont (20)
When an R comes after a vowel, it becomes UH, and AW becomes the slided sound, AH-AW. Thus, four dogs becomes fo-uh dahawgs. Some local words are: hoppergrass (grasshopper), old-field colt (illegitimate child), school breaks up (school lets out), weskit (vest).

Coastal Southern (21)
Very closely resembles Virginia Piedmont but has preserved more elements from the colonial era dialect than any other region of the United States outside Eastern New England. Some local words are: catty-corner (diagonal), dope (soda, Coca-Cola), fussbox (fussy person), kernal (pit), savannah (grassland), Sunday child (illegitimate child). They call doughnuts cookies.

Gullah (22)
Sometimes called Geechee, this creole language is spoken by some African Americans on the coastal areas and coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina and was featured in the novel on which the musical, Porgy and Bess, was based. It combines English with several West African languages: Mende, Yoruba, Wolof, Kongo, Twi, Vai, Temne, Ibo, Ewe, Fula, Umbundu, Hausa, Bambara, Fante, and more. The name comes either from the Gola tribe in Liberia or the Ngola tribe in Angola. The grammar and pronunciation are too complicated to go into here, but some words are: bad mouth (curse), guba (peanut - from which we get the English word goober), gumbo (okra), juju (magic), juke (disorderly, wicked), peruse (to walk leisurely), samba (to dance), yam (sweet potato).

Gulf Southern (23)
This area was settled by English speakers moving west from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas, as well as French speaking settlers spreading out from Louisiana, especially the Acadians (see "Cajuns" below). Some words are: armoire (wardrobe), bayou (small stream), bisque (rich soup), civit cat (skunk), flitters (pancakes), gallery (porch), hydrant (faucet), neutral ground (median strip), pecan patty (praline).

Louisiana (24)
There's a lot going on down here. Many people in southern Louisiana will speak two or three of the dialects below.

Cajun French (the Cajuns were originally French settlers in Acadia, Canada - now called Nova Scotia - who were kicked out when the British took over; in 1765, they arrived in New Orleans which was still French territory) carries the highest prestige of the French dialects here and has preserved a number of elements from the older French of the 1600s. It has also borrowed some words from the Spanish who once controlled this area. There are many local variations of it, but they would all be mutually understandable with each other as well as - with some effort - the standard French in France.

Cajun English borrows vocabulary and grammar from French and gives us the famous pronunciations "un-YON" (onion) and "I ga-RON-tee" as well as the phrase "Let de good times role!", but movies about cajuns usually get the rest wrong. A famous authentic speaker is humorist Justin Wilson, who had a cooking show on PBS, with his catch phrase, "How y'all are? I'm glad for you to see me." New Orleans is pronounced with one syllable: "Nawlns."

There is another dialect of English spoken in New Orleans that is informally, and some would say pejoratively, called Yat (from the greeting, "Where y'at"), that resembles the New York City (particularly Brooklyn) dialect (more info). Provincial French was the upper class dialect of the pre-Cajun French settlers and closely resembles Standard French but isn't widely spoken anymore since this group no longer exists as a separate social class.

Louisiana French Creole blends French with the languages of the West Africans who were brought here as slaves. It is quite different from both the Louisiana and standard dialects of French but is very similar to the other creoles that developed between African and French on various Caribbean Islands. Married couples may speak Creole to each other, Cajun French with other people, and English to their children.


References:

  • Rattray, David, ed. Success With Words: A Guide to the American Language. Prepared in association with Peter Davies.. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, 1988. (Rattray is the primary source for information in the text. Since the text was intended as an informal overview, page numbers are not cited.)
  • Crystal, David. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • McArthur, Tom, ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Taggart, Chuck. A Lexicon of New Orleans Terminology and Speech The Gumbo Pages. Accessed May 7, 2001.

Comments on the text may be sent to Robert Delaney, Reference Associate and Library Webmaster of the C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University.
For further information, see Dialect and Identity, American English Regional Dialect Samples and American Dialect Links, courtesy of Evolution Publishing's American Dialects Page.



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Last Updated 23 October 2010